Mythical Liberations

When talking with students about how certain social demands or restrictive classification schemes are experienced as oppressive, I often find that their proposed solution is to remove as many social constraints as possible. Of course, this makes sense according to the liberal theory of subjectivity: social demands are seen as nothing more than constraining, and consequently subjects are most free when they are liberated from the most number of social demands. Unfortunately this view completely misses the positive or constructive role of social constraints.

Recently, my go-to example to challenge this liberal theory of subjectivity is feral children. Arguably, the individuals least constrained by human social norms are those feral children whose earliest childhood is experienced without human contact, such as the two Indian children — Kamala and Amala — who were famously raised by wolves as infants but later found and adopted by Christian missionaries in the early 20th century. Continue reading “Mythical Liberations”

Cultural Boundaries and Murder

Fazl_MosqueNotions like tolerance and multiculturalism, suggesting that a society should celebrate the variety of cultures present, has many positive elements for encouraging diversity and underrepresented communities. To function, though, multiculturalism relies on the delineation of boundaries for various cultural communities and, as implemented in places like Great Britain in the 1990’s, specific organizations represent clearly labeled communities and become the conduits for government grants and the means for communication with the government. The potential pitfalls of this approach have come to the fore in the response to the recent murder of Asad Shah, whom news reports identify as an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow.

The tragedy itself is not attributable to these concepts of tolerance or multiculturalism. The person charged with killing Shah has issued a statement in which he accused Shah of claiming to be a prophet and thus disrespecting Muhammad. Apparently, Shah’s identification as an Ahmadi, who generally identify as Muslim while professing to follow Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a more recent messenger from God, was an impetus for the murder, if the accused killer’s statement is to be believed. Continue reading “Cultural Boundaries and Murder”

Circuses Not Bread

Picture 8It strikes me that Black Friday sales videos — featuring people stampeding into stores, trampling one another, or fighting over limited-inventory sales items (sometimes even fighting each other) — are comparable to the spectacle of the Roman coliseum, no? For, much like those ancient events, the desperate people who are put into an outrageous situation are not what it is about; instead, it is us, the ones comfortably watching those brawling shoppers, at a safe distance, who ought to attract our attention. Continue reading “Circuses Not Bread”

Dignity or Freedom

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHuman dignity and freedom are two values that many people reference in contemporary society. Like other terms that are useful in political and societal debates, people maintain competing definitions of these two terms. One person’s assertion of human dignity competes with another’s assertion of individual freedom.

Disputes over a festival at the Kukke Subrahmanya Temple in Karnataka, India, last month illustrate this malleability and subsequent tension. During this festival, one group of devotees (identified as high status Brahmins) consume a meal, and then the remaining food and their banana leaf plates are spread on the floor. Other devotees (identified as low status Dalits and indigenous “tribal” people) physically roll across the banana leaves. One understanding of the practice fits into the cultural constructions of status and purity, as the leftovers of a higher status person are pure, even purifying, while the leftovers of a lower status person are polluting. Because of the socially recognized status differential between those who eat and those who roll on the leavings, some identify this practice as an affront to the human dignity of the participants, as it reinscribes on each group their respective status. An op ed in the Bangalore Mirror concerning the practice related it to sati (burning of widows on a funeral pyre), declaring that this practice “is disgusting in this era of science and progress.” Continue reading “Dignity or Freedom”

You Are What You Read, with Craig Martin (Part 1)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

During my senior year of college I picked up a copy of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle, and it has made an indelible impact on me. In the book, Fish suggests that abstract principles — specifically abstract liberal principles such as “freedom,” “equality,” “inclusion,” “tolerance,” or “neutrality” — are, in and of themselves, vacuous of any particular content and can, in practice, be turned to support just about any social agenda. To use another analytical vocabulary: abstract liberal principles are floating signifiers that, in context, can be fixed to any particular referent, depending on the skill of the rhetorician at work. Fish suggests that liberal proceduralism — the attempt to find and apply non-partisan political principles — is, ultimately, a theoretically bankrupt affair, as abstract principles only begin to take shape when fixed to partisan projects. If it’s politics all the way down, the presentation of one’s own view as above the fray can be reduced to a form of legitimation. That is not to say that what is theoretically bankrupt is not politically useful: in good Nietzschean fashion Fish assumes that partisan contestation is the nature of the game, and that presenting one’s partisan agenda as neutral is a powerful way of winning social and political contests.

While today I find the details of Fish’s analysis weak at a number of points, I nevertheless remain convinced of his argument on the whole. In a field like the study of religion — many corners of which are saturated with liberal rhetoric — I find Fish’s suspicion of liberal discourse continually useful.

Are You Really Free to Read?

9004993292_58782594d3_kI have a book problem. Having built a whole wall of bookshelves recently, and filled much of that space with books we already owned, perhaps I should say that I have a bookshelf problem. My family and I enjoy collecting books, often searching at thrift stores for treasures that others have discarded. We have found a range of works, including works by nineteenth and early twentieth century authors whom we deeply appreciate but would never have found browsing at Barnes and Noble or perusing the suggestions on Amazon. These book-buying endeavors reinforced our experiences browsing bookstores in India and Singapore that also led us to gems not commonly available or even known in the United States. Continue reading “Are You Really Free to Read?”